Learning communities of teachers and scientists to support educating students about urban ecosystems
Understanding urban ecosystems is both an end goal for socio-ecological education in urban areas – so that students and teachers can use knowledge in their everyday lives and environments – and a key pedagogy for fostering environmental citizenship. Place-based teaching demands that teachers have a rich suite of knowledge and skills, appropriate instructional resources, and the necessary motivation and confidence. The Baltimore Ecosystem Study (BES) developed a professional learning community of scientists, educators and teachers to support place-based teaching in and about Baltimore’s socio-ecological system. The supportive nature of the community provides the foundation for the other key elements of our professional development (PD) approach, including: 1) engaging teachers in authentic place-based, science learning in schoolyard and other familiar parts of the ecosystem; 2) exploring patterns and pathways of student thinking and learning about big ideas and principles in understanding urban ecosystems; 3) sustained support during the school year in workshops and in the classroom; and 4) educative materials used for both teacher and student learning. Teacher data including surveys, written reflections, end-of-year portfolios, interviews and classroom observations help address our research question, “What supports and constrains effective teaching in and about the Baltimore urban ecosystem in middle and high schools?”
From the summer of 2009 through the summer of 2014, we have worked with 92 teachers in the Baltimore region. Most teachers participated in a 5-8 day summer workshop followed by 3-5 Saturday school year sessions, with nearly one third participating for at least two years. Teachers varied in which facets of our PD model were most useful, though all recognized the importance of the supportive nature of the professional learning community. Teachers who implemented more of the teaching practices and curriculum materials that were targeted by the PD indicated more motivation, commitment, confidence and support than those who implemented fewer, and were less constrained by time and their curriculum. The BES emphasis on place-based and authentic learning in the context of real-world problems is reflected in data in post-workshop written responses from teachers. These practices, along with attending to student thinking and engaging in principle-based reasoning all were mentioned frequently by teachers in these responses. Similar patterns are found in the end of year portfolios, with evidence of significant PD impact on the topics they taught, the practices they used and in the ways they related their teaching to citizenship, culture and their students' lives.